It's been a challenging three months for teacher Morrie Wells. Morrie is a head teacher in a mixed-age classroom of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. She was both thrilled and apprehensive about the multicultural mix of children in her class. As she made her rounds of home visits, she found that only 60% of the children spoke English at home. Other children were from Korea, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, and Japan. During the home visits, she noted many unique family perspectives. And the children came from a wide range of religious backgrounds. There were Muslims, Christians, and Jewish families represented.

How, she asked herself, will I find a way to bring this group of individuals together to form a compassionate community where children can relate to one another and thrive?

The challenges of working with a diverse group of children within a classroom community where kindness and compassion can flourish are many. How do you overcome language barriers? How do you build trust among a group of highly diverse families — particularly in these uncertain times? What do you do in the classroom to help children recognize and respect one another's individuality? Now that we're approaching the holiday season, what are appropriate ways to celebrate holidays and traditions? When conflicts arise, how do we deal with them and help children to work collaboratively? These are important questions to consider as you attempt to build a caring community of children and families.

Working Through Language Barriers

When English is not the first language of some of the children in your group, how do you communicate even the simplest of directions or negotiate with them? More important, how can you help children tell you about their needs, their worries, and their joys — and share them with one another? Here are some strategies to try:

  • Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia schools, reminded us that children have "hundreds and hundreds of languages." Using this concept, make paint, clay, wire, a computer, markers, water, paper, foil, and other materials available. As children work side by side, they communicate through their representations, laughter, and gestures. These opportunities to work and play together help build liaisons among the children in the group. Even though they won't be speaking in "words," they will be speaking in many other languages that are equally meaningful.
  • Learn several phrases or important words from each child's home language. Use these words regularly in the classroom. Incorporate them into songs, stories, and routines until the entire classroom community is familiar and multilingual.
  • Use interpreters during the early months together in order to create a sense of comfort and security for everyone in the group. Typically, when children are immersed in a new culture with a new language, they will pick up the new language quickly. However, it is very important to remember to acknowledge their home language and culture as a priority. Never expect families to speak English at home in order to make the transition to school an easier experience.

Building Trusting Relationships

Building trusting, meaningful relationships within the school community is an essential component of any classroom, anytime. But in today's less certain times, building trusting relationships between home and school, as well as among the children in the classroom, becomes a top priority.

Make certain that your book corner contains books with images and dialects that reflect your classroom makeup. Everyone needs to feel as though he is important enough to have had a book written about him.

Ensure that families are well represented in your classroom. Framing photographs of each family and displaying them attractively in the room gives children a strong sense of self and welcomes the family as well. If a family does not wish to contribute photos, ask them for a representational artifact that will be symbolic and meaningful instead.

Children Are Individuals Too

In order for children to begin to feel comfortable with diversity, they must first feel a strong sense of self. Finding ways to celebrate individuality within a group helps each child to feel special, significant, and acknowledged.

Invite children to create self-portraits. Assist them as they carefully attend to the special details of their own identity Talk respectfully about unique physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, eye color, and shape. Hang the group of portraits together in an area of the classroom where they can be revisited and admired for weeks and months to come.

Ask children to select an artifact that might represent themselves as individuals. For example, in some children's families, particular types of clothing may be worn or musical instruments played. Gather the group's collection together and display them. This experience will help the children begin to identify one another by their special traits and interests.

Recognize the strength of every child and encourage children to share their strengths. It will become obvious to the group of children and teachers, as everyone gets to know one another, that there will be one child in the class who will be a whiz on the computer, another who will probably be the puzzle champ, and still another who might draw the best dinosaurs. It usually does not take long to begin to accrue a long list of strengths within the community. With encouragement, children will begin to seek out the experts in their midst when they have a problem As teachers cultivate this practice, children will soon see that the group is definitely stronger than the sum of its parts!

The Holiday Question

The question of how to, or whether to, celebrate holidays in the classroom is sometimes an emotional one - particularly for the adults. It seems to strike hard at fundamental traditions, memories, and values. There are several issues that make the celebration of holidays in the early childhood classroom problematic. Although they don't replace holidays, rituals are meaningful to children and you can create your own ways to celebrate special, smaller events such as:

  • The first snowfall
  • Learning to tie your shoes
  • Valuable lifelong lessons about relationships
  • Celebrating the migration of the local ducks
  • A particularly beautiful morning
  • A new, successful classroom experience
  • A newly cleaned classroom (where children have participated in cleanup)
  • The beauty of leaves falling outside the windows
  • A midyear celebration of the way children have learned to work with one another
  • The onset of summer
  • A new outdoor experience children have particularly enjoyed

Helping Children Work Collaboratively

When children work together on a project, they have the opportunity to develop a number of important skills including understanding team dynamics and how to communicate, organize themselves, and have the pleasure of seeing their efforts take shape around a shared idea.

Encourage children to form committees. When the committees can be made up of an eclectic group — including children who have been ostracized for being "different" — the project becomes an opportunity for children to get to know one another on a more intimate level. At first, some children may be hesitant and even fearful about participating. But with helpful adult role models, the momentum of the project should take off by the second meeting, and children will begin to interact with enthusiasm inspired by the project itself.

Create collaborative projects. One such project might be the creation of a huge rainbow tree. Here's how it worked in one program: Children on this committee went around the school with baskets, carefully collecting items that were RED, then items that were GREEN, and so on, until they had piles of materials to work with. This treasure hunt part of the work took about a week. Children worked in teams, communicating and organizing themselves. During this first phase, children's individual expertise showed through. Some preferred to organize and others preferred to hunt. During the second phase — hanging the items on the tree — children had many decisions to make about placement, adhesives, reach, and so on. Again, collaboration was essential. It is inevitable that when children work together in these kind and shared ways, this behavior will begin to creep into other areas of their work and play.

There are bound to be ups and downs on the journey toward creating a classroom community built on a model of mutual respect, compassion, and kindness. It will be constantly evolving, changing, growing, and developing. With your best efforts, your classroom community will be one of new hope and possibilities.

For information about development at specific ages, view the Kindness and Compassion Ages and Stages Developmental Chart.